GUEST POST: Charles Regula, VIA Technologies
The tech industry has trained consumers to be fixated on the next big thing.
That superphone you bought two years ago very likely does everything you could need, and does it well. But relentless marketing is telling you that your phone is ancient, and that you need a new device that’s faster, brighter and skinnier, and comes with all kinds of technical specs you and most consumers only fleetingly understand.
The same thing happens in digital signage. When it comes to playback devices, the buyer market has been trained to think about specs that have bigger numbers – octo cores versus quad cores. There are more cores, whatever they are, so they must … be … better. Right?
The operating system has a new version, so the system should be on that version, right. Because it has more … umm … more something.
Long-running digital signage networks don’t depend on using the latest and greatest technologies. They depend on dependable. They thrive on predictable. They love reliable.
Sales people tend to love selling the next big thing, because it’s something shiny and new to raise in a meeting with clients. The technical and operations people, on the other hand, tend to only like the next big thing if it makes the current thing work better. Otherwise, they’re more inclined to stick with the Devil they know.
For many years, software and solutions companies using Intel-based PCs as digital signage players have worked with manufacturers who can assure them a reliable, predictable, high quality supply of the same small computer, for as much as three years.
Their motivation is very pragmatic. They want to develop a software image – with an operating system and tested, validated device drivers – that they can load on new computers as they come in from the manufacturer and then go out in the field. That process only works well when all the specs and components of the device are the same for the full life cycle of that product.
It’s why you see software companies marketing certain devices they know. They don’t want to figure out how to get their player application working on a potpourri of different PCs. It chews up too much time and cost, and that cost gets passed on to customer pricing.
The same next big thing has been happening as ARM-based media devices have started to be used as digital signage players that run the Android operating system. The attractions are obvious. Low-cost devices and a free, open-source operating system.
The next big thing in this new area has a different spin, though. The fixations are not just about faster specs. It’s about more, for even less. They want better specs, but at a lower price.
What often gets lost or forgotten in this relatively new area is that most Android boxes being used today are made for streaming video to the TVs that people watch at home at night. These are consumer boxes that are made as cheaply as possible to be competitive in a crowded marketplace.
They are designed for 4/7 – as in 4 hours a night, 7 nights a week – not the 24/7 operating needs of most digital signage networks.
That drive to be competitive through lowered cost means the product life cycle of most Android TV boxes and sticks can be measured in weeks or, in some cases, months. What’s under the hood – in terms of circuitry and connectors and the loaded operating system – can vary even between shipments.
Supporting these variations can be a nightmare. Just like the companies working with PCs, the smart, seasoned engineering teams working on ARM and Android want predictable.
MORE IS MORE
The good news – as a developer or as an end-user – is that there are some manufacturers out there making and marketing commercial Android signage players. They cost more – but over the life cycle of a network, that cost might equate to a dollar a month more.
For that extra investment, networks taking advantage of Android get product that’s the same with each shipment – for three years, not three months. They also get engineering support from the manufacturer’s engineers, who understand digital signage and its demands.
The next big thing can be deadly if it’s all about the latest specs. The real next big thing in Android digital signage should really be about predictability.